Toronto: Todd McCarthy Previews the Festival

Gravity On Set Bullock - H 2013

Gravity On Set Bullock - H 2013

THR's chief film critic on the onslaught of promising films, with stars from Meryl Streep to Julia Roberts and weighty topics like the JFK assassination.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

What starts as early September showers in Venice and Telluride turns into a downpour of big autumn films at the Toronto Film Festival. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, which had its world premiere as the opening night film in Venice, already has begun thrilling audiences with its beautifully choreographed and suspenseful space sequences. Steve McQueen's all-star historical drama 12 Years a Slave and Jason Reitman's adaptation of the Joyce Maynard novel Labor Day, starring Kate Winslet, were unveiled in Telluride during the Labor Day weekend. All three films will move on to Toronto, always a magnet for the studios and American filmmakers eager to benefit from a fawning media and historically friendly local audiences.

This year, Toronto will show 288 features, including quite a few of the most eagerly awaited fall-season entries. Critics always are frazzled trying to schedule as many films into a day as possible. By the deluge's end, it will be significantly clearer which year-end titles must be reckoned with.

PHOTOS: Toronto 2013: The Films

Toronto used to feel obliged to bow with a Canadian film, which often made opening night eminently missable, but this year's event will be launched by Bill Condon's hot-button WikiLeaks drama The Fifth Estate, which, on the basis of the trailer, looks like a must-see if only for Benedict Cumberbatch's impersonation of Julian Assange.

Other Gala titles sure to have crowds lining up early are John Wells' film version of Tracy Letts' Tony-winning play about a dysfunctional family, August: Osage County, starring Meryl Streep, Sam Shepard, Julia Roberts and Juliette Lewis; Ron Howard's 1970s Formula One racing drama Rush; and, after debuting in Venice, Parkland, which features Zac Efron, Paul Giamatti and Billy Bob Thornton in a look at the JFK assassination from the point of view of events at Dallas' Parkland hospital. A title that triggers curiosity with its timely subject is Peter Ho-sun Chan's American Dreams in China, which is described as a Chinese The Social Network and revolves around three school friends who start an online English fluency school only to be sued.

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The ever-bulging Special Presentations section alone would seem to offer enough temptations for any festival. Several films here already will have appeared at Telluride or Venice, including Ralph Fiennes directing himself as Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman; Reitman's Labor Day; Jonathan Glazer's alien sci-fi thriller Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson; David Mackenzie's prison drama Starred Up with fast-rising young actor Jack O'Connell; John Curran's much-anticipated Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska as a woman who treks across Australia; Denis Villeneuve's suspense drama Prisoners, toplining Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman; and James Franco's Cormac McCarthy adaptation Child of God, which has played Venice. (The industrious Franco, who was in Cannes with As I Lay Dying, becomes the rare U.S. director to premiere one film in Cannes and a second in Venice in the same year.)

Notable world premieres in the section also include Nicole Holofcener's romantic comedy drama Enough Said, which turned out to be James Gandolfini's next-to-last film; Kevin Macdonald's speculative fiction piece How I Live Now with Saoirse Ronan; Kevin Kline playing Errol Flynn in his final days opposite Dakota Fanning as his teen squeeze Beverly Aadland in The Last of Robin Hood, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland; and Richard Shepard's Dom Hemingway, starring Jude Law and Richard E. Grant in a tale of colorful criminality.

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Other films with intriguing elements are Patrice Leconte's English-language love triangle A Promise, starring Alan Rickman, Rebecca Hall and Richard Madden; Bertrand Tavernier's political satire Quai d'Orsay; John Turturro's Fading Gigolo, with the director starring as an aging hustler under the tutelage of pimp Woody Allen; Charlie Stratton's Therese, starring Elizabeth Olsen in an adaptation of Emile Zola's Therese Raquin; Pawel Pawlikowski's black-and-white Polish drama Ida; and Alberto Arvelo's biography The Liberator, starring Edgar Ramirez as Simon Bolivar.

By the time Toronto ends, the summer drought of serious, provocative movies officially will be over.